Wednesday 22 October 2008

Victorian philanthropy and government hypocrisy.

The work of government-funded anti-prostitution group The Poppy Project is ‘incoherent’ and ‘dangerous’, according to British experts.

The release of a damning report by academic specialists in the politics of sex work comes in the wake of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s plans for a massive crackdown on the ‘blight’ of prostitution in the UK. The Home Secretary’s proposals, based largely on the dubious work of The Poppy Project, will outlaw street prostitution and criminalise some buyers of sex – moves which have also been denounced by women’s rights groups.

‘We are appalled that the government has used this sloppy research while ignoring a large body of reputable research,’ said Dr Helen Ward, one of the authors of the document. ‘Jacqui Smith’s proposals are deeply flawed and will put sex workers at even more risk of violence and exploitation. They also contain yet another major assault on civil liberties – this time on the liberties of adults having consenting sex.’

‘Just two years ago in Ipswich we all witnessed the tragic consequences of zero tolerance policies on sex work,’ said Kate Hardy, a researcher in sex work and member of activist group Feminist Fightback. ‘Women are forced to take more risks, with less time to decide whether or not to get into cars, having to work alone rather than in pairs or small groups and working in darker more isolated areas.’ Police in Ipswich implemented just such a policy before the tragic murders of a number of sex workers in the city in 2006 (pictured).

‘It is not the place of the criminal law to be policing people’s personal morality,’ said Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon of the University of London, adding that ‘If they really cared about people’s safety or about public nuisance, the government would allow these women to work off the street.’

The Poppy Project, which last year received over £2.4 million of public money, offers highly conditional help to the 0.2% of prostitutes who are victims of sex trafficking. Feminists and sex workers alike have been appalled at the insistence by members of the Project that prostitutes agree to give up sex work forever and to turn in their traffickers – sometimes a very dangerous step for them to take – before they receive any help whatsoever. ‘It’s like the worst sort of Victorian philanthropy,’ said Dr Brooks-Gordon.

As well as making life more dangerous for street prostitutes, the Home Secretary’s proposals will give the police greater powers to raid brothels and flats where sex workers operate. This move is particularly astounding, given the fact that the police are currently allowed to keep a quarter of the money used in such raids – even if that money represents a woman’s life savings. The risk of diverting police attention to pursuing the most profitable rather than the most exploitative sex work establishments has not been lost on the Home Secretary, who simply declared: ‘we will take their bling away from them.’

‘There have been scenes of police arriving at 5am in full riot gear and dragging women out into the street in their underwear,’ said Dr Brooks-Gordon. ‘As a feminist, I find it very hard to see how that promotes women’s rights.’

The aim of the changes, according to a Home Office memo, is ‘to send a clear message that the Government will protect the vulnerable.’ However, many groups, including coalitions of sex workers, have raised concerns that the implementation of such legislation will actually increase the dangers for trafficked women and migrant workers in the sex trade, whose lack of papers will leave them even more vulnerable to abuses within underground prostitution rings.

The Safety First Coalition denounced the moves towards criminalising the purchase of sex being promoted by UK ministers ‘despite evidence from academics and sex workers in Sweden that the law has forced prostitution further underground, undermining women’s safety, driving women into the hands of pimps and making it harder for the police to prosecute violent men and traffickers.’

Isabella Lund, of the Sexworkers and Allies Network in Sweden, commented on the failures of the Swedish Model in Sweden itself, saying that ‘street prostitutes today are more exposed to robbery, assault and rape than before.’

If Jacqui Smith and her cronies really care about protecting society's most vulnerable workers, they wouldn't be focusing on 'taking their bling away' but on putting schemes in place to help prostitutes clean up and clear out, or to make their work safer, if that's what's needed. The work of The Poppy Project smacks of the worst sort of moralising Victorian philanthropy, and is utterly inappropriate for dealing with the social problems caused by prostitution in the 21st century.


  1. Great post - even assuming that sex work and prostitution need to be eradicated one day (which isn't my position), the fact is that they exist right now, therefore protection and rights exist right now. I don't get it - I can't think of another job in the world where it's up for debate whether the workers should have any rights or protection, just because the job itself is useless or harmful.

    I mean, people mining diamonds for DeBeers so that rich women can wear pretty stones - a useless, harmful, dangerous job, yet no one would argue that those workers don't need protection and rights. Construction workers building luxury hotels in Dubai - again, same thing. But prostitutes - radical feminists will come out and argue against protection and rights.

    I guess there's the concern that this would legitimise it as a profession and put the majority of sex workers in the position where they're told, hey, it was your choice, deal with it. I guess that's a legitimate concern, I can see how total legalisation and liberalisation would do that, but I don't see how unionisation and regularisation would.

    I mean, let's face it, unions exist because most people's jobs are dangerous, gruelling, and unprofitable, and because they don't have a choice whether to have those jobs or not. I was going to say that the main difference is the involvement of a woman's body, but that's not true - it's not like women working in factories or fields leave their bodies at home, and their bodies aren't affected by the labour. So the main difference is the involvement of a big leaky dick, really.

    Maybe it's insensitive of me, I don't know, but I don't really see what the difference is whether the cause of harm is pesticides, fumes, or a huge throbbing man-truncheon.

  2. I find it bizarre that something like alcohol or cigarettes (which are proven to have ill effects) can be legal and institutionalized while paying for sex is criminalized. Last time I checked, nobody got cancer from sex.

    Besides, we're talking infringing on personal freedoms here. I say legalize prostitution, make hooker strip malls, etc. It'd work so much better that way.

  3. Last time I checked, nobody got cancer from sex.

    Lawdy, lawdy. Click here for enlightenment.

  4. Damn you Obnoxio, you got there first!

    Well, there's a first for me too - agreeing with a 'radical' lefty feminist...

    As we all know, prohibition doesn't work. That applies whether it's drink, drugs, prostitution or, sadly, socialist numbskulls from Scotland becoming Prime Minister...

    And the lesson is: don't vote for them and they can't impose their nonsense on the rest of us...

  5. Obnoxio - Yeah, HPV causes cancer, and you can get HPV from sex, but it's the virus, not the act of sex itself that causes the cancer ;)

  6. Let me explain this. very. simply.

    The. Swedish. model. does. not. criminalise. sex. workers.

    Nor is prostitution an offence now. Soliciting is, running a brothel is, and so on, but having sex for money - not illegal.

    Furthermore, most of the police have moved on from victorian values and would take a crime against a sex worker seriously.

    No-one's saying sex workers don't need or deserve rights and protection.
    Sex workers HAVE rights and protection. They would STILL have that if BUYING, not SELLING, sex was illegal.

    All legalisation would do is lend legitimacy and respectability to the sex trade. Women could be refused Jobseekers' Allowance if they refuse to do sex work.

    Let's be clear, I'm not judging women for entering the sex trade, especially if they effectively have little choice. I'm saying it's not the glamorous world bloody Belle du Jour make it seem like. It's fucking vile and exploitative and abusive, and NO amount of regulation will control that. It would only make it harder to prosecute traffickers, pimps, and men who rape and assault prostitutes.

    We need to concentrate on teaching the men who think they have a right to buy the use of women's bodies that this is unacceptable. That is deeply damaging, and for one, I don't want to be a woman in a world where men think all women are available.

    I mean, whether you would ideally like to see sex work eradicated at some point in the future, or not, it's pretty obvious that the legislation is the best possible compromise. Women who really do want to be in sex work can - once again, it won't be illegal. Their customers will be the ones doing something illegal. How much safer will they be if they're able to report an abusive customer to the police?
    Those who don't want to be in sex work would be offered help to get out, such as training for (real) work.
    What's to disagree with, if you really claim to be a feminist?

  7. "I mean, let's face it, unions exist because most people's jobs are dangerous, gruelling, and unprofitable, and because they don't have a choice whether to have those jobs or not. I was going to say that the main difference is the involvement of a woman's body, but that's not true - it's not like women working in factories or fields leave their bodies at home, and their bodies aren't affected by the labour. So the main difference is the involvement of a big leaky dick, really."

    This is rubbish.
    Yes, most people *do* choose their jobs, even if they have few or no qualifications, even cleaners, manual labourers, factory workers, shop workers, chose that work over other equally unskilled jobs.
    Most people's jobs are *not* dangerous and gruelling. I assume you have no knowledge of something called Health & Safety legislation?
    There is a difference between manual work using one's body, and sex work. You do know that most customers - maybe not all, but most - think that if they've 'bought' a woman that entitles them to do whatever they like to her? Employers can't do that. They can't say 'you signed a contract to work in this factory making *whatever* so if I say you have to work 12 hour shifts, and beat you if you don't meet unrealistic targets'...illegal (sadly not in all of the world, but illegal).

    I'm sure you'll say 'yes, but that's why sex work should be regulated like any other work'.
    No. Will not work. Sex work is NOT a job like any other.
    Most jobs don't ask you to give your intimate self - being paid to, say, eat, urinate, defecate, or to give of your deepest and most private thoughts and feelings? Doesn't happen.

    Yes, some jobs use a lot of emotional and mental energy (arts, academia and so on) but that is not what employees are paid for, they're paid for the result, the work done. You don't have to feel a particular emotion or have thoughts on demand.

    I'm not saying 'sex is sacred' but it is personal, private. It's not something in the public sphere, like most work is.

    For that reason, how would you even regulate it? How, actually, can you physically regulate sex work to ensure that the customer treats the sex worker with respect, doesn't force or coerce them into acts they don't want and haven't agreed? It would be impossible to prove, unless you had CCTV in every room where sex work took place. And that would clearly be a gross violation.
    It simply isn't possible to regulate sex work like most work, so that the chances of harm are minimised.

    Again, sex workers can already report it to the police if a customer rapes or assaults them. That simple point is missed over and over again by the pro-pornstitution lobby.

  8. And so-called feminists really ought to think twice when conservative men agree with them.

  9. "Most jobs don't ask you to give your intimate self - being paid to, say, eat, urinate, defecate, or to give of your deepest and most private thoughts and feelings? Doesn't happen."

    Bollocks. I'm paid to think! My agent pimps out my very mind, my core rational facilities just for money.

    Some people are paid to emote for money on stage (musicians for example) while thousands ogle them.

    Others are paid to use their legs and arms and the very sweat from their brow!!!!!

    Some people even have to clean up shit and piss and blood from people who are dying. Still others are bored to tears in mind numbing jobs in call centers JUST TO PAY BILLS!

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